Journalist Patrick Cockburn says U.S.-led airstrikes have not degraded or destroyed the Islamic State (IS), who now control about a quarter of Iraq
ANTON WORONCZUK, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Anton Woronczuk in Baltimore.
U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden was forced to apologize for rather factual comments he made at Harvard University last Thursday. Referring to the U.S.-led campaign in Iraq and Syria against the Islamic State, he said, quote, our allies in the region were the larger problem. Biden went on to say that various states involved in the war campaign against the Islamic State, such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates, had been responsible for funding extremist jihadi groups, among them the al-Nusra Front and al-Qaeda, and were also fueling a Sunni-Shia proxy war.
Meanwhile, Kurdish fighters look like they have been defeated in Kobani in the three-week-long offensive by the Islamic State. Ankara has refused to allow fighters from the Kurdish Workers’ Party, also known as the PKK, to cross the borders to fight against the Islamic State, nor has it provided military support in Kobani’s defense.
Turkish officials, meanwhile, are set to meet up with coalition officials about the next actions that they will take.
Now joining us to discuss this from England is Patrick Cockburn. Patrick is the author of the book The Jihadis Return: Isis and the New Sunni Uprising. He has written three books about Iraq and has been a correspondent for The Independent of London, mainly in the Middle East, since 1990.
Thanks for joining us, Patrick.
So let’s start off by getting your response to the comments made by Joe Biden about the various members of the coalition and their support for rebel groups. And why do you think that he was forced to apologize for something that was rather factual?
PATRICK COCKBURN, JOURNALIST, THE INDEPENDENT: Well, first of all, I found it refreshing, because everything he said is true. It is true that Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates–he didn’t mention Qatar, but he could have–were the countries that fostered the growth of the Islamic State and of Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria. It’s true that they also encouraged a Sunni-Shia civil war. And it’s also true, as he said, that the moderates don’t really exist. The U.S. [incompr.] the moderates in Syria. They’re not there, although in theory the moderates are to be cultivated by the U.S. and are then to fight both ISIS and the Assad government. So everything said was wholly true.
I think it’s rather depressing. He doesn’t exactly fully apologize. But he rather retreated from what he said.
But I think that just as he was speaking, the consequence of pretending that the coalition against ISIS, made up of people who created ISIS, is so unwieldy and contradictory that it isn’t going to achieve anything. And we see that today with what appears to be the impending fall of Kobani, this Kurdish town on the Syrian border, and something that people haven’t really noticed, which is ISIS has also won big victories in western Iraq. It’s taken most of Anbar province. This is an enormous province that makes up about a quarter of Iraq and is now just on the Western approaches of Baghdad.
So what does all this mean? It means, really, that the policy that Obama put forward–that he would seek to degrade and destroy ISIS, and the means would be airstrikes–has fallen apart, and fallen apart very quickly.
WORONCZUK: Well, maybe one could also make the counterargument that the reason why Kobani fell is because Turkey didn’t offer any military support for the Kurds in their fight against Islamic State.
COCKBURN: Yeah, this is true, but, I mean, that is sort of what Biden was saying, which was that this alliance of icountries is an alliance of people who have previously had either close relations with the jihadis, but certainly acted in ways which encouraged them to grow.
WORONCZUK: And what about the Turkish parliament authorizing force against the Islamic State in Syria? Why now?
COCKBURN: I suppose it opens up [incompr.] for them to do anything, but it’s not quite clear what they’re going to do. I mean, I think it’s such a messy, complicated situation, but the thing I think that people need to take on board is that ISIS is not being degraded, certainly not being destroyed. Actually, it’s not even being contained. It’s expanding in both the east and the west. Once they’ve taken Kobani, they’ve cleared the whole way between Mosul, second-biggest city in Iraq, which they took on 10 June, and Aleppo, which–they’re just on the outskirts of Aleppo, which is the biggest city in Syria. So the ISIS, the Islamic State, the caliphate, what everybody mocked, is growing in size and strength. It’s not been diminished.
WORONCZUK: And in terms of Syria, it was recently reported that Iraqi Prime Minister Al-Abadi sent an envoy to Assad to assure him that he wouldn’t be a target for any of this during any of this war campaign. Do you think this can be taken seriously?
COCKBURN: Well, I think, again, what strikes one is just how messy and contradictory U.S. policy–indeed, everybody else’s policy–is toward Syria. You know, it’s perfectly obvious that if you effectively attack ISIS, the Islamic State, and the main opponent of that state is the Syrian government, you will just have helped the Syrian government. There’s no way you can avoid this. And it’s absurd that people even discuss it. If you aren’t helping Assad by attacking the Islamic State, then you’re not attacking the Islamic State very effectively, which turns out to be true. I mean, Kobani is just falling as we speak, and U.S. airstrikes weren’t able to prevent that. They don’t seem to have been very frequent, and they don’t seem to have been very accurate. And probably one reason why ISIS decided to take Kobani, I think, was to win an extra victory, to show that the airstrikes had not weakened them and they could still win on the battlefield. And they’ve just done that. So this is really quite a defeat for the administration in Washington and quite a victory for ISIS.
WORONCZUK: It also seems to be the case and the same in the Al Anbar province in Iraq, which seems to also be totally controlled, at least huge parts of it, by the Islamic State.
COCKBURN: Yeah, there are a few islands of Iraqi Army control or a few tribes that are allied to them. But over the last month or so, really without any attention by the media, and, I think, very little by foreign governments, the Islamic State has taken over places. They took a town/city called Hīt, which is in Anbar. They’ve been moving, taking over most of Ramadi, which is the capital of Anbar province. They’re moving towards West Baghdad.
Now, in the past, we’ve always said, well, they can’t take Baghdad, which is a mostly Shia city. It’s a city of 7 million people. The Iraqi Army has tens of thousands of men there. There are militias there. But what we’ve seen over the last month is that the Iraqi Army is just as much of a wreck as it was when it lost northern Iraq in June. So things are not getting better.
WORONCZUK: Do you think it’s worth having a debate about military strategy?
COCKBURN: Yeah, I think that people should think–I think the sort of–the Pentagon certainly has thought about this. It’s fairly obvious that in Syria they need real allies on the ground, not pretend allies. And the people who are mostly fighting the Islamic State are the Syrian army, the Syrian Kurds, Hezbollah. They don’t have to sign treaties with these people, but they need a degree of cooperation that they can effectively act against the Islamic State [incompr.] no coordination, or even communication, between the poor Syrian Kurds who’ve been fighting away in Kobani and the U.S. Air Force.
So I think that the political weakness of the U.S. strategy outlined a couple of months ago when the airstrikes started has been exposed, that this whole policy is not working.
WORONCZUK: Okay. Patrick Cockburn, author of The Jihadis Return.
Thank you so much for joining us.
COCKBURN: Thank you.
WORONCZUK: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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